Melan Mag’s newest Because of them we can… series aims to document, recognise and pay homage to women of colour who came before us and changed the world in a way that means we are now more privileged than they were. Here we highlight American stage actress, professional singer-songwriter, comedian, and first black Oscar-winner, Hattie McDaniel.

Although she’s best-known for her role as “Mammy” in Gone with the Wind, there’s so much more that she has achieved. Here’s a very short list of some of her achievements and turning points in her life .

Hattie McDaniel
Hattie with Clark Gable in Gone With the Wind
  • She is considered to be the first African-American woman to sing on radio, appearing with Professor George Morrison’s Negro Orchestra in 1915.
  • Despite segregation in her era, she became close friends with many of her white co-stars – including Clark Gable, an actor who threatened to boycott the Gone with the Wind premiere in Atlanta because she was not invited.
  • In the face of criticism from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), she would state that she worked not only for herself but for future generations of African-Americans as well.
  • McDaniel’s funeral was attended by thousands of mourners; she wanted to be buried in the Hollywood Cemetery, the resting place of many famous actors, but racial segregation prevented this. In 1999 the cemetery built a cenotaph in her honour to compensate.
  • Beyond Tara, The Extraordinary Life Of Hattie McDaniel – a 2001 AMC documentary celebrating her life and legacy, presented by Whoopi Goldberg – won in the category of Outstanding ‘Special Class’ Programme at the 2002 Daytime Emmy Awards.

During her career as an actress, she came under fire from black communities for perpetuating racial stereotypes in her screen roles to which she replied that she would rather play a maid than be one.

Hattie with her award
(Photo by John D. Kisch Separate Cinema Archive Getty Images)

After film roles began to dwindle, she became the first black actress to star in her own nationally-broadcast radio series, The Beulah Show. It transferred to television but after just a few episodes were filmed, McDaniel was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in October 1952, aged 57.

Hattie McDaniel: Black Ambition, White Hollywood, a biography on her life, written by Jill Watts, was  published in 2005 and it’s been reported that producer Alysia Allen has obtained the film rights to the book is set to develop a biopic.

While it took another 50 years before another black actress took home an Oscar (Whopi Goldberg, Ghost), the impact Hattie has made on future generations cannot be underestimated. Mo’nique wore a turquoise dress and gardenias when she won her best supporting actress award, just like Hattie did.

 

On winning her Oscar, Mo’nique thanked Hattie, saying: “For enduring all that she had to, so that I would not have to.”

The legacy of the incredible star lives on: On receiving her Oscar, Hattie McDaniel said:

“It has made me feel very, very humble; and I shall always hold it as a beacon for anything that I may be able to do in the future. I sincerely hope I shall always be a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” – She most certainly has.

 

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